No sooner had Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson introduced DJ Durkin to his new football team early last December than did the rookie head coach start pacing.
With his team sitting in rows of cushioned seats in Gossett Football Team House auditorium, Durkin laid out his plans for righting a program that had hit a crossroads with the midseason firing of former coach Randy Edsall about two months before.
Durkin, still walking back and forth at the front of the room, asked his players not to make any rash decisions about transferring. He wanted to push the Terps to match his vigor and intensity. He promised to assemble the best coaching staff in the country.
“Right away,” quarterback Perry Hills said, “you just want to buy into everything he says.”
Then came time for questions. Offensive tackle Damian Prince, one of Edsall’s prized recruits, raised his hand in the back row, wondering about the style of offense Durkin wanted to run.
The conversation wasn’t their first. Durkin tried to recruit Prince to Florida entering the 2014 season, his fifth year as a Gators assistant. Then after a one-season stint as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, the 38-year-old earned the chance to revive Maryland’s program as the youngest football coach in the Big Ten.
Still, when Prince finished his question, he figured Durkin would take a pragmatic approach to explaining his expectations.
“But he didn’t really have a response,” Prince said. “He was just like, ‘What’s up, Damian?’
“He’s not always running around with his head on fire. He’s cool.”
Note: DJ Durkin won his Maryland players over quickly after taking the job. “Right away, you just want to buy in to everything he says,” quarterback Perry Hills said. (Courtesy Photo/Michigan Athletics)
Bowling Green started the second half of its game against Florida International Sept. 16, 2006, by kicking off, only to watch the Panthers returner scamper 98 yards for a touchdown.
The Falcons special teams players hadn’t done their jobs. Durkin, the unit’s coordinator, was furious.
While reviewing the breakdown after the game, Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon, now at the helm of the Colorado School of Mines program, thought about changing the scheme or personnel.
Durkin had another idea.
“Coach, there’s nothing wrong with the personnel,” Durkin told Brandon. “It’s the way I’m coaching. I’m going to get this fixed.”
What relieved the problem — Bowling Green didn’t allow a return touchdown in its ensuing five games — was Durkin getting “in the grill of the coverage team,” Brandon said.
So as Durkin built his own staff, he made special teams a priority. He appointed Pete Lembo, a Division I head coach for the past 15 years, to lead the unit and coach the tight ends.
When Lembo joined the staff in late December, he was the third former head coach in Durkin’s crew. It was one example, the coaches said, of Durkin bringing experience into their collaborations.
Mike London thought about taking a year off after resigning from Virginia, but he became Maryland’s associate head coach after a conversation with Durkin about their families less than two weeks later.
Durkin and Jim Harbaugh once played a one-on-one basketball game that took an more than an hour to reach seven points. (Courtesy of Stanford Athletics)
Scott Shafer, who led Syracuse from 2013 to 2015, was the first to arrive in College Park but stepped down as defensive coordinator for personal reasons in April. His vacancy gave Durkin the chance to reach out to a past colleague.
Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh coached together at Stanford from 2007 to 2009. They met when Buh picked up Durkin from the airport for his interview.
A week after their ride, Durkin hadn’t heard back. With prompting from his mentors at Bowling Green, Durkin called then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh about a decision. By the time he hung up the phone, Durkin had accepted a job with the Cardinal and would lead the special teams and defensive ends groups for the next three years.
Before Buh arrived in College Park, Durkin formed his offensive staff around former Arkansas State offensive coordinator Walt Bell. The 31-year-old prepared for “the interview of my life” before the two met in New Orleans last December, but after 10 minutes of talking football, they had a three-hour conversation about team plans, personalities and life.
Sometimes, though, Durkin reverted back to the traditional interview process.
When offensive line coach Dave Borbely arrived in College Park, Durkin had him introduce himself to the assistants before drawing his daily drills on the white board.
When Borbely stepped to the front and grabbed the marker, he turned around to take off his coat. He was comfortable and ready to get to work.
“He’s a young guy, but he’s an old-school guy,” Borbely said. “I could tell he had a vision for where he wanted the program to go.”
Has that impression — the one Durkin claimed would involve the country’s best coaches — panned out as the Terps enter his first regular season Saturday against Howard?
“He’s lived up to his word,” Hills said. “Every single thing.”
Note: A snow storm prevented Durkin from flying to visit quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome when he was recruiting him, so he made his pitch via FaceTime (Courtesy of Florida Athletics)
Once Durkin recruited his staff, he set out to build the roster.
First up was convincing defensive back Will Likely to delay his entry into the NFL draft. In their first one-on-one meeting in his office, Durkin confessed he spent hours game-planning against Likely before the Terps and Wolverines met last season.
The two have since met alone multiple times after Likely decided in January to return for his senior season. At that time, Durkin also focused on filling out his first recruiting class as a head coach.
Durkin had two months and one day between taking the reins at Maryland and the Feb. 3 signing day, but Rivals.com’s 2012 Recruiter of the Year managed to sign 10 players from this state and seven from Florida to highlight the 23-player class.
His first commitment came from Archbishop Carroll guard Richard Merritt, one of four consensus four-star recruits in the group. Guard Terrance Davis, the No. 1 overall prospect in the state, joined him a few weeks later, giving the Terps four commits from DeMatha Catholic High School.
Durkin hit the recruiting trial hard, even when the conditions weren’t ideal.
A snow storm prevented him from flying to a home visit with three-star quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, the Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year. While running backs coach Anthony Tucker pitched in person, Durkin joined via FaceTime.
He used his phone to reach out to three-star defensive backs Elisha and Elijah Daniels, too, calling the twins while they made dinner one night to offer them scholarships.
Soon after, he visited them at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Florida. Sitting in their high school coach’s office with their dad, Durkin organized their College Park tour and talked about his expectations for the brothers as Terps.
Elisha Daniels’ first impression: Durkin was taller than he expected. His second: the coach was intense.
“Very on a mission to get everything going in the right direction,” he said. “That’s what I love about him.”
Note: Durkin’s style has rubbed off on his assistant coaches. Aazaar Abdul-Rahim has adopted his tendency to take notes on everything. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)
Defensive backs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim felt the same vibe when he was the coach at Friendship Collegiate Academy in Washington, D.C., and Durkin was the defensive coordinator at Florida, recruiting Knights five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor.
Durkin didn’t say much in the meeting, deferring to then-Gators coach Will Muschamp. But when Abdul-Rahim drew on the board, Durkin watched over his shoulder, asking questions.
“He’s always on a spot,” Abdul-Rahim said, “looking around, lurking, just seeing what’s going on.”
He still does the same.
Abdul-Rahim has adopted Durkin’s tendency to take notes on everything. No detail is too small to record on the recruiting trail or to press upon the Terps once they join the team.
Players run onto the field for practice. Their toes must be behind the white line in stretching formations. Durkin urges them to sprint through the sideline, rather than to it, in drills. Off the field, their shirts are tucked in and their cafeteria trays go in the correct spot.
“Something so simple and subtle,” Buh said. “He can escalate that detail into being the most important thing you can possibly ever do.”
That’s not to say, however, Durkin can’t let loose.
During a recruiting weekend this winter, he and Abdul-Rahim played ping pong at the prospective players’ hotel. Durkin won the first match, dishing out some trash talk before Abdul-Rahim took the second.
When Durkin was at Stanford, he and Harbaugh once battled in one-on-one basketball, neither willing to call the other for a foul in a game that took an more than an hour to reach seven points.
Not much had changed as the rookie leader refused to let the ping-pong clash end in defeat.
Abdul-Rahim didn’t feel like playing anymore, but Durkin insisted, unrelenting. Abdul-Rahim gave in, and Durkin took Game 3, though Abdul-Rahim may or may not have eased up to ensure his boss wasn’t too upset around the recruits.
“I thought this guy was going to play me all night if he didn’t beat me,” Abdul-Rahim said. “All night, seriously.”
Note: Josh Harris, one of Durkin’s college teammates, wasn’t surprised when he saw the video of Durkin screaming at his players at a spring practice. He’d seen him go crazy on the sideline before. (Courtesy Photo/Michigan Athletics)
This year’s campaign isn’t Durkin’s first experience taking charge of a team that’s struggled to win with consistency. In his four-year linebacker career at Bowling Green from 1997 to 2000, the Falcons finished 15-29.
The shortcomings left the team fractured. Durkin, a two-time captain with a no-nonsense attitude, carried himself in a way that left quarterback Josh Harris, a true freshman in Durkin’s final year, feeling like the Youngstown, Ohio, native hated him.
But as Harris watched film after one game his rookie year, reviewing a play he dodged defenders to weave along the Falcons’ sideline, Durkin’s reaction proved anything but disdain.
While the rest of the Falcons displayed little emotion — some weren’t even watching the play — Durkin went berserk on the sideline. Jumping. Clapping. Yelling. Waving his arm in a circle.
“Going absolutely bananas trying to will me down the field,” Harris said. “It said, ‘This guy, although he’s scary, he cares even about the little people.’”
DJ Durkin (left) played linebacker for Bowling Green from 1997-2000. (Courtesy of Bowling Green Athletics)
So when Harris saw the Big Ten Network video of Durkin’s spring practice speech go viral on Facebook, he wasn’t surprised.
Durkin had the Terps gathered in a group, all on one knee, as he preached accountability.
The vein in his neck bulged as he slammed his hands in front of his body while talking about last year’s 3-9 record. His voice cracked and his face deepened into a shade of red, almost matching his shirt, as he shouted his abhorrence for losing.
“That is 100 percent DJ Durkin,” Harris said. “That energy is contagious, ridiculously contagious.”
Durkin’s emotions and facial coloration had calmed down by his first media day as a head coach in mid-August, but his mental drive hadn’t.
Midway through his press conference, a reporter asked about his perceived honeymoon period — if, in his first year on the job, Durkin might have a reprieve from reaching immediate success. After all, the new staff might need time to gel, Durkin hasn’t filled the roster with his own recruits and the Terps are still learning to reflect Durkin’s competitive, winning edge.
Standing in the same room he listened to questions from his new players almost nine months earlier, Durkin raised his eyebrows before breaking into a smile and shaking his head.
Just as the reporter finished, Durkin dismissed the leeway.
“Some slack?” Durkin quipped. “There is no slack.”